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Authors: Héctor Tobar

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BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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Elena talked at length that day about the Mayans and the science of archaeology. She had studied anthropology with the vague idea of becoming an archaeologist. For some reason Antonio could remember only one of the things she told him, a principle of the science: “A vacant building collapses faster than an occupied one.” This theory helped explain why the old buildings and temples had crumbled in just a few hundred years.

“In archaeology, a hundred years is almost nothing.”

Antonio was staring at the remnants of some concrete stairs, lost in his thoughts, when José Juan tapped him on the shoulder.

“Let's go,” he said. “It's going to get dark soon.”

They returned to the mattress, dragging it back to their shelter. Along the way José Juan found two sheets of plywood, which he used to reinforce the roof. When the rains began again, the water did not seep through.

*   *   *

It was early evening, and the rain had finally stopped. The sky was beginning to clear over the vacant lots, the storm front passing to the east, patches of blue opening in the west. Antonio watched the migrating clouds and tried once more to remember the date his wife and son died.

There are still things that I remember. Carlos was a happy baby who took his first steps on a Sunday, in a restaurant called Los Arcos, walking away from his father across the tile floor.

It was seven years ago, of that he was more or less certain. But the exact date eluded him. It was the last of the numbers that made up the almanac of his short family life, along with Carlos's birth weight, the number of hours Elena spent in labor, their wedding anniversary, their son's last shoe size. To know the date was a measure of his loyalty and devotion.

We named him Carlos Martín Bernal, in honor of my grandfather and of San Martín de Porres, the black saint from Peru, the little statue Elena prayed to in the church altar when she was pregnant.

The date marked the beginning of his descent, the long fall that ended in this vacant lot filled with homeless people and puddles of rainwater.

I was Elena's husband for three years and she loved me for all my flaws. She said that when we met the first thing she noticed about me was my sad student wardrobe, my wrinkled, worn-out pants and shirts. When we were dating she bought me new clothes.

Elena was killed three weeks after she wrote a letter. Antonio could still remember that it was exactly three weeks. Elena wrote the letter because she could never remain silent in the face of an injustice. Elena was reckless. She marched in demonstrations without covering her face, she made love without taking precautions. Elena's letter caused her death and the death of their son, but Antonio would always love her for her recklessness, for the whirlwind of her voice. If words were colors, Elena's letter would have been painted in vibrant hues of crimson and orange, a landscape like the winter sunsets in Los Angeles, vast and full of hope.

High clouds were fanned across the horizon in long furrows, like a freshly plowed magenta field. Dying sunlight reflected off the crystal skyscrapers to the east, a constellation of office lights beginning to glow.

In Antonio's country, where there were many natural beauties, the sunsets were ordinary and predictable. Dusk arrived and passed in a single flat shade of orange. Here in Los Angeles, nightfall was often a sweeping and multihued event, with a majesty that suggested the coming of the millennium, the end of a planetary journey.

Someone once told Antonio it was the pollution in the air that made the evening sky this way. Like everything else in Los Angeles, even the beautiful sunsets were man-made.

January 26, 1985. Or was it the twenty-seventh?

 

4.
THE SOURCE OF THE INFECTION

 

The old man sat chewing on his cigar, scratching his nubby fingers against the concrete table while he waited for Longoria to move. The chess pieces stood cryptic and immobile, a puzzle Longoria could not solve, little black and white soldiers on a green and white field imbedded in the table. Five minutes, and Longoria had not moved. He was already a knight and a bishop down, and he didn't want to make any more mistakes. The clock ticked and ticked, crying out for Longoria to move-move, move-move, move-move. The old man, a Cuban named García, kept scratching at the table, his fingers working in a rhythm that matched the ticking of the clock.

“Will you please stop that?” Longoria said irritably.

“What? What am I doing?”

“You're scratching the table. It's making me nervous.”

“Stop trying to intimidate the sergeant,” a Mexicano named Lopez yelled from another table. “Can't you see the man is trying to concentrate? Maybe if you let him concentrate he'd beat you for once.”

The chess tables were in the northwest corner of MacArthur Park. Longoria had first come to this park on weekend mornings to jog. One day, about two years ago, he had drifted over to watch the chess players, drawn by their intense faces as they leaned over the tables. He liked the idea of men coming to the park to sit and think. The players were Latino and white, black and Cuban, Jewish and Filipino. Even the occasional
chino.
People talked English here, mostly, and Longoria liked to practice his English.

In Spanish you say “
caballo.
” In English it's “knight.” “Checkmate” is English for “
mate.

Since taking up this new hobby, Longoria had built a small library on chess strategy. It wasn't enough to play; the thing was to win, and Longoria rarely won.

Someone once told him that no two games of chess are alike. If only they were, if only he could spot the patterns, it would be easier. The secret, he had read in his books, was to anticipate what your opponent was going to do. But with García it was never the same move twice. The old man was tricky and always seemed to be thinking two or three moves ahead. In Longoria's chess books they called this “developing your board vision,” something Longoria had yet to master. Chess wasn't like war, where you could use your strength and courage to impose your will, to overcome your mental mistakes. García was sickly and flabby, an old walrus of a man with tobacco-colored stains on his skin, but he played chess like a real stud.

Longoria had played twenty or so matches with García and had never beaten him. It didn't look like he was going to beat him this time, either. Exasperated, confused, Longoria finally moved a piece to stop the ticking of the clock. Somebody standing behind him immediately muttered his disapproval.

García responded quickly, bringing his fat hands over the board to move a rook and call out, “Check!”

Ten minutes and a few moves later, it was checkmate.

“You lost again, sergeant.”

“One day I'll beat you.”

Together they looked at the board, the arrangement of the pieces at checkmate, the landscape of Longoria's defeat.

“You started off good with the Sicilian defense, but then you seemed to lose your nerve,” García said.

“Black is supposed to play defense.”

“Yes,
hombre
, but we're not playing for the world championship here. This is the park. Black doesn't always play defense. Eventually you have to come after me.
No tengas miedo.
I always tell you the same thing, but you're stubborn and you don't listen. Don't be afraid, just attack.”

After watching some of the other games and quietly debating strategy with García, Longoria left the chess tables and walked home to the Westlake Arms. Six blocks to go over in his mind what he had done wrong, where his strategy had failed him. The first thing he did when he stepped into his room was to reach for the chess books in the dresser's bottom drawer. Lying on the bed with Rashnikov's book, he turned to “Opening Strategies for Black.”

“As black, defend carefully,” Longoria read, “but be prepared to take the initiative from white and strike at the appropriate time.”

Longoria studied his books for hours, the damp air of his austere room filled only by the Sunday afternoon sounds of the Westlake Arms. At night the sounds of lovemaking were sharpest, but during the day the noise of children dominated the apartment building's acoustic universe: eager, treble-toned voices of boys and girls, balls bouncing down the narrow corridors, tricycles squeaking across the floor in the apartment above him, boys opening windows and calling to their playmates across the inner courtyard. They were American-born children, and their talk was like no language Longoria had heard before, a crazy mixture of schoolyard English, the Central American Spanish of their parents, and the strange Mexican-influenced argot of the neighborhood.


Fijate, vos, que ese vato
from
La Mara
got in a fight with that dude from
la
Eighteenth Street who lives down the block. Yeah, right there in the class. Real
chingazos. El de La Salvatrucha estaba
bleeding
y todo.

The children argued with their siblings and pleaded with their mothers. The mothers did not allow their sons and daughters to play outside, in the free-fire zone of the street, or on the front steps, where a platoon of gang members held sway, so every shout and whisper the children made was trapped inside these arsenic green walls, drifting into Longoria's room as he lay on his bed and tried to read about chess and Dr. Wayne García's prescriptions for inner peace through mind control.

“To control the mind is to enter into another universe, a world we did not know existed. It is a world independent of our urges, where we free ourselves from the demands imposed upon us by thousands of years of instinct and cultural training. Hunger, lust, loneliness, and fear have no place in this new universe. To enter it is to …”

It was impossible to concentrate with all the noise the children were making. There was great disorder in the voices, too much shouting.
Do I live in a playground or an apartment building?
From outside his door came the muffled sounds of a bike crashing to the thinly carpeted floor of the hallway. A brief pause. Then the shrieking scream of a girl, perhaps five years old, crying out to her mother in fear and pain. He wanted all these voices to go away, he wanted to be left alone. Their voices were like metal in his mouth. Time stopped when the voices and the crashing of toys and bicycles filled his room. “Mami, Pepe won't give it to me. Give it to me!” Insolent children. Out of control. Why couldn't their parents keep them quiet? Their parents should tell them to respect their neighbors.

Longoria did not behave like this when he was a child. Longoria the child knew a life only of work, hunched by his mother's side, baby fingers squirming like worms in the black earth.

*   *   *

Guillermo was still a child when the army pulled him out of the Lux Theater. Slowly the army made him a man. But in those first days in the barracks there had been only disorder. You expect the army to be organized, but when you're a draftee and they send you to one of the cannon-fodder infantry units, you learn the truth. They were roused from their sleep before dawn, made to run in circles around a muddy field. Calisthenics and truncheon blows seemed to be integral elements of the training. Two officers stood on the field and yelled orders, contradicting one another and then getting into heated arguments, right there in front of the men. If you slipped in the mud or fell behind in the line of joggers, the soldiers struck you on the shoulders or the back with their batons, or they kicked you with their boots. They were skilled at kicking and striking you without actually fracturing bones. Sometimes, for variety, they elbowed you in the stomach. One day when Longoria was jogging, the man in front of him slipped and he tripped over his body, hitting the wet ground with a slapstick splash. Longoria tried to scramble to his feet, but he wasn't fast enough to escape a kick to the rib cage. He was sore for three days and had trouble sleeping.

They gave him a uniform that didn't fit, about two sizes too small. Longoria was five feet four inches tall, and this uniform was made for someone even shorter and much skinnier—a child, perhaps. In the line of jogging recruits there was a young man who looked more like a little boy, barely fourteen. The uniform Longoria was wearing would fit him. Longoria's shirt was so tight he found it hard to keep it tucked in. He ran a few yards and his stomach started to show. He was afraid that the pants would rip and they would punish him with more baton blows.

After four days of training, four days of being rousted out of bed before dawn, Longoria's fifth day in the army began with an unusual silence. No reveille, nothing. He watched the sunrise through the barracks window for the first time, the sky turning crimson over the muddy training field. Two hours went by. Longoria and the rest of the men sat on their cots, afraid to move without orders, expecting an officer to walk through the door at any moment. But the entire day passed, they were given nothing to eat, no officer showed up, no soldier came through the door telling them to stand at attention. They just stayed by their cots, watching through the windows as afternoon became evening. The camp outside seemed to be deserted.

Longoria and his fellow conscripts were sitting in darkness now, in this barracks of rough-cut wood, the night breeze blowing through cracks in the walls. He had not eaten since yesterday, and he was very hungry. In the cot next to him, the man with the wispy mustache began to speak. His name was Alvaro.


Se olvidaron de nosotros
,” said Alvaro. “They just left us here and forgot about us. Maybe we can try to sneak out.”

“No, this is some kind of test,” Longoria said. “A test to see if we're loyal. They want to see if we'll stick around. And if we don't, they'll shoot us down.”

Alvaro stroked his mustache. “You're right. I wouldn't put it past them. They'd shoot us in the back.”

BOOK: The Tattooed Soldier
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